- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico’s highest court on Monday ordered Gov. Susana Martinez to recognize the Fort Sill Apache as a New Mexico tribe.

The federal government designated a 30-acre parcel in southern New Mexico as the tribe’s reservation in 2011, but the Apache governmental offices are in Oklahoma.

The ruling by the Supreme Court will force Martinez to invite the tribe to annual tribal-state summits called for under a 2009 law that requires sovereign government-to-government cooperation.

The state Indian Affairs Department also must include the Fort Sill Apache Tribe on the agency’s website as part of a contact list for all tribes and pueblos in New Mexico.

“It provides an opportunity for us to have a seat at the table with the other 22 tribes. As the 23rd tribe in the state now, we can be involved and have government-to-government relationships with the state in a way that we did not have before,” tribal Chairman Jeff Haozous told reporters after the court ruling.

State recognition also will allow the tribe to seek other benefits, such as state financing allocated yearly for tribal capital improvement projects.

The tribe will consider building a governmental office on the land in southern New Mexico if it’s able to get state infrastructure funding, Haozous said.

There’s a smoke shop and restaurant on the tribe’s land along Interstate 10 between Deming and Las Cruces, but efforts to open a casino have been blocked. The tribe acquired the land in 1998.

Haozous said the court ruling would have “absolutely no bearing” on separate legal questions of whether the tribe can open a casino on the New Mexico reservation. He said an appeal is continuing of a 2009 decision by the National Indian Gaming Commission against tribal efforts to operate a casino offering bingo games.

The tribe currently operates a casino in Lawton, Okla.

Martinez, like her predecessors, opposes a casino on the tribe’s land in New Mexico. In 2008, Gov. Bill Richardson sent state police to the site and threatened to blockade a casino if the tribe moved ahead with planned electronic gambling machines.

The Supreme Court unanimously made its decision after hearing arguments from lawyers in the case. A written opinion will be issued later.

The governor’s lawyers contended the Apaches are an Oklahoma tribe because that’s where government offices are located and most tribal members live in Oklahoma.

“The governor still believes that the Legislature intended taxpayer funded programs to benefit residents of New Mexico, not Oklahoma. Fort Sill stated to the court that this is not about gaming, but time will tell what their true motives are,” Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said in a statement.

The tribe maintained that New Mexico must recognize it because the federal government established its reservation in the state.

The tribe’s lawyers said the federal census identified 147 tribal members in New Mexico, but none lives on the 30-acre reservation. There are 712 enrolled members of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe and 47 percent live in Oklahoma, according to Haozous.

Members of the Fort Sill Apache tribe are descended from the Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apaches, who lived in southern New Mexico and Arizona until removed by the federal government in the late 1880s. They were sent to Florida, Alabama and later to Oklahoma.

Haozous said he envisioned tribal members returning to their ancestral homeland in New Mexico over many years.

“It’s not going to happen overnight. We were forced by gunpoint to leave. We can’t force our people to do anything. We have to just provide opportunities and encouragement for them to move,” he said.


Follow Barry Massey at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP .

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